MARTHE by Donald M.--Trans. Frame


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Family letters, 1892-1902, recently discovered in the attic of a French chateau--most of them preoccupied with the stormy life of young Marthe de Montbourg, the hot-blooded daughter of a prim, well-to-do family, landed gentry (petite noblesse) in Normandy. When the correspondence begins, Marthe is 20, single, and pregnant (by an unknown servant or farmhand); to avoid scandal, she has gone to Paris with widowed mother Emilie and sister Eleonore. And the vast majority of the letters go back and forth between elderly, bossy Emilie and her somewhat calmer brother Charles de Cerilley. Their major preoccupation in the book's first 100 pages: the search for a complacent husband for Marthe--with a near-comic combination of desperation and snobbishness as they consider the pathetic clutch of candidates attracted by Marthe's dowry and noble name. (""What do you think of the [tax] collector's position? I find it preferable to that of a petty stationmaster."") Eventually, after high-strung investigations, Marthe is wed to impoverished blueblood Robert d'Aillot. Happy ending? Hardly. A feud immediately begins between Robert and his mother-in-law--about his use of Marthe's money, about his domineering treatment of Marthe. Both of the feuders argue their cases to Charles, who tries to be an objective mediator. The secrets in Marthe's past (her father's syphilis, her promiscuity since age 14) are used as bargaining weapons. Marthe herself is soon writing her own letters, revealing (exaggerating?) Robert's abusive treatment of her while also admitting her sexual need for him. (Everyone--including Marthe--acknowledges that she has an aberrant ""temperament,"" driven by ""animal passion."") And ultimately Marthe flees from her husband's house, insists--over Charles' objections--on a divorce. . . and retires to the country (and an early death) with a female companion. In summary, then, this is a fascinating story--reminiscent of both Balzac and Zola, saturated with the French concerns for money and appearances (but money above all), rich in reflections of sexual mores and social hypocrisies. (Before Marthe goes into labor, her aunt writes her uncle: ""If misfortune were to strike the mother, we must be in agreement as to the illness she died of. What do you think?. . . Meningitis, like Emile, would be logical. Diphtheria? Or peritonitis?"") Most readers, however, will find the letters themselves too repetitious and slow-moving for narrative involvement--and will probably tire of the petty squabbles about halfway through.

Pub Date: Nov. 21st, 1984
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich